As I mentioned in a previous post, I am beginning to look at the Buddha’s disciples in more detail. So I start with the inevitable question: why study the disciples?
By taking refuge in the Triple Gem, we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Each of these terms has innumerable layers of meaning. For the term ‘Sangha’, one of these layers encompasses the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis that practiced with the Buddha. So studying the disciples of the Buddha is one way to take refuge in Sangha.
Bhikkhu Bodhi adds to this the following set of considerations:
…the very measure of the Buddha’s success as a spiritual teacher is to be determined by his skill in training his disciples. The canonical verse of homage to the Buddha hails him as “the unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed,” and thus the acid test for the validity of this claim must be the mettle of the men and women who submitted to his guidance…so the brilliance of the Buddha as a spiritual master is determined not only by the clarity of his Teaching but by his ability to illuminate those who came to him for refuge and to make them luminaries in their own right.
The Buddha was a teacher who taught many bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men, and lay women. If his teachings had no effect on those he taught, we would not care about him and this practice. Part of our trust and faith in the Buddha Jewel and the Dharma Jewel is rooted in our trust and faith that transformations took place among those in the Sangha Jewel.
Although I agree (with some reservations) with what Bhikkhu Bodhi says above, I find it interesting to take this view of the Buddha as spiritual teacher and read it against the Buddha’s words when he says:
So too, brahman, there is Nibbāna, and the way leading to it, and myself as guide, yet when my disciples are advised and instructed by me, some attain Nibbāna and some do not. What have I to do with that, brahman? A Perfect One is simply one who shows the way.
The Buddha seems to be saying quite directly not to judge him by the spiritual attainments of his disciples. A Perfect One points the way – so what if no one can follow the directions?
So in addition to taking refuge in Sangha and in nurturing our trust and faith in the Buddha Jewel and the Dharma Jewel, another reason to study the disciples is to explore further these two views of the Buddha – one, where his radiance as teacher is partly determined by the attainments of his disciples and the other, where the mettle of his disciples is largely independent of his ability to point the way.
But let me stress yet another reason to look at the disciples – they carried the practice with them, they lived it, breathed it, were intimately intertwined with it. Without them, there would be no practice today. The disciples are not merely reflections of the Buddha, but Buddhas in their own right and this would be reason enough to study them.
So with open heart and open mind, with grateful heart and grateful mind, let’s move forward on this path and see how it unfolds!
(Note: For Bhikkhu Bodhi’s quote, see Great Disciples of the Buddha: Their Lives, Their Works, Their Legacy, p. IX. For the Buddha’s description of himself as one who points the way, see this post.)